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Winston and Mariota still class of draft

The NFL draft is eight weeks away, so there’s plenty of time for opinions formed during the Scouting Combine that ran through last Monday to change.

My sense, however, is that no amount of additional information gleaned from college pro days, player visits to team facilities, and deeper background checks is going to alter these takeaways:

• Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota helped themselves considerably by taking part in throwing drills, which quarterbacks projected to be chosen at or near the top of the draft have rarely done. I’m convinced Winston solidified his place as the No. 1 overall pick, while Mariota strengthened his case to be taken somewhere in the top five. Winston showed off the strong, accurate arm that made him as accomplished a pitcher as he was a passer at Florida State.

Mariota demonstrated that he needs some work with timing with his receivers, something that wasn’t a part of what he did while running a spread offense at Oregon, but he still threw well. By most accounts, both were impressive during their 15-minute interviews with teams, showing a good understanding of offensive systems and defenses.

• It’s hard to imagine another class of receivers being as good as last year’s, so I won’t. The New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr., the Buffalo Bills’ Sammy Watkins, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans delivered as advertised in making the sort of impact that has tended to be rare for rookies at the position. Still, the new crop looks as if it, too, could provide its share of immediate difference-makers.

What was striking was the speed displayed by a couple of the larger pass-catching prospects in the 40-yard dash: 6-foot-3, 215-pound Kevin White of West Virginia (4.35 seconds) and 6-5, 237-pound Dorial Green-Beckham of Oklahoma (4.49). Then there was Miami’s 5-9, 179-pound Phillip Dorsett, who ran a blazing 4.33. How well these and the other receivers in the draft can separate from defenders and catch passes against tight coverage remains to be seen, but there is reason to think that they’ll make their marks quickly.

• Quarterback is a woefully thin position. That seems more of a continuation of a trend than something exclusive to this year’s draft, which should be at least somewhat of a concern for the long-term future of the league (a topic for another day). After Winston and Mariota, there isn’t anything close to a consensus on the third-best player at the position. And most current and former player-personnel types believe the major cause is the proliferation of spread offenses being played in college.

In those schemes, quarterbacks aren’t under center and don’t call plays in the huddle, which is pretty much the norm in the NFL. Spread quarterbacks look to the sideline for plays to be signaled, sometimes from coaches holding up placards, and basically throw to areas on the field rather than going through a progression of reads as is normally the case in the NFL.

And they’re never asked to make the three-, five- or seven-step timing throws that a quarterback has to make at the next level. But here’s the guy who I think has the best shot at being the third QB selected: Baylor’s Bryce Petty, who despite coming from as pure a spread system as there is, throws the ball well, has good deep-ball accuracy and a nice delivery.

• This draft is loaded with defensive linemen who clearly have the speed to be effective edge rushers regardless of scheme. One of the most dynamic workouts of the entire Combine came from Clemson’s Vic Beasley. Not only did he run the 40 in 4.53 seconds and show remarkable agility during change-of-direction drills, he also bench pressed 225 pounds 35 times.

At 6-3 and 246 pounds, he doesn’t offer ideal size, but his athleticism and his outstanding collegiate career (33 sacks in four seasons, including 25 through his last two) make the case that he could be another Dwight Freeney. Florida’s 261-pound Dante Fowler helped his draft stock considerably with a 4.6 40.

• Running back is exceptionally deep, far better than it has been in recent years. A player at what has been a steadily devalued position hasn’t been selected in the first round since 2012, when three were taken (Trent Richardson, No. 3, by Cleveland; Doug Martin, No. 31, by Tampa Bay, and David Wilson, No. 32, by the Giants).

But the streak could end when the draft begins on April 30 in Chicago. Most analysts have a first-round grade on Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, who seems like a good fit for the San Diego Chargers at No. 17. The Bills’ running back need also could be sufficiently addressed in the middle or late rounds, if not with undrafted rookie signings that have been particularly fruitful for the position.

• Offensive line appears as strong as it usually is. However, with spread offenses dominating the college game, linemen are more adept at pass protection than they are in the fundamentals of run-blocking. That could pose a problem for the Bills, who, with Greg Roman’s power-oriented offensive scheme in place, want to add road graders.

• There isn’t a whole lot of talent at defensive back, especially safety.

• Linebacker might be the most underwhelming spot of them all.

Throwing is throwing

Wonder how a scout goes about projecting quarterbacks who come from spread attacks, such as Mariota and Petty, into the more conventional offenses that most NFL teams employ?

When I posed that question to talent evaluators, the typical answer was that it isn’t easy, but it’s doable. The main reason is that all scouts basically use the same “critical factors” to grade quarterbacks: arm strength, quickness of release, accuracy and judgment. They can be determined every bit as much from a quarterback who works in a spread offense as they can from one who doesn’t.

Analyzing analytics

The March edition of ESPN The Magazine, its annual analytics issue, examines the commitment each team in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and the NFL has to analytics.

For the NFL, it looks at how dependent clubs are on advanced statistics when it comes to acquiring players in free agency and the draft, making in-game decisions, and using available technology to monitor players’ physical exertion levels in practice.

The piece breaks the leagues down into five categories, and this is how it shook out for the NFL: All-In: (none). Believers: (Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New England, Philadelphia, and San Francisco). One Foot In: (Buffalo, Chicago, Green Bay, Miami, Oakland, Seattle, and Tampa Bay). Skeptics: (Arizona, Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New Orleans, New York Giants, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis). And Nonbelievers: (New York Jets, San Diego, Tennessee, and Washington).

It’s notable, first, that no teams are viewed as being fully engaged with analytics and less than a third of the league falls into the Believers category. That confirms my long-held belief that football isn’t like other sports, such as baseball, that have done the most to enhance the growth of analytics in athletics.

Outside of the fantasy world, the game isn’t driven by numbers the way baseball is. It includes far too many variables, including base schemes and adjustments therein and health factors, for a plug-and-play, “Moneyball” approach that makes the numbers more relevant in baseball.

Within some teams where the GM and/or coach is more of an old-school thinker, a certain amount of tension can exist between the analytics and player-personnel departments. It’s easy to see why. There are some GMs, such as the Rams’ Les Snead, who are passionate in their beliefs that getting to know a prospective player on a human level carries far more weight than whatever picture is painted of him via advanced statistics.

“It’s like if someone asks you to pick someone as a graduation speaker,” Snead told ESPN The Magazine. “Do you just go on his nice résumé or how well he can write and put words together on a sheet of paper? Well, those may be the metrics of the situation. But for me, before you pick that speaker, I want actually to go hear him and feel him speak … Does he move the crowd? If you’re in the room, you can feel it, and then you can say, ‘Yeah, now he’s that guy!’ ”

It’s also notable that in explaining why the Bills fall into the “One Foot In” group, the magazine mentions team President Russ Brandon vowing in January 2013, when he also was the club’s CEO, to build a “robust analytics department.” Ten months later, he hired MIT engineering graduate Mike Lyons as director of analytics.

But coach Doug Marrone, also hired that year, proceeded to pretty much eschew hardcore, analytics-driven beliefs that going for it on a makeable fourth down is better than punting or kicking field goals. Interestingly, new coach Rex Ryan is known as a traditionalist when it comes to game management. If that doesn’t say something about the way co-owners Terry and Kim Pegula feel about the importance of analytics in football decision-making, then consider this: They were fully prepared to bring back former Bills GM Bill Polian, who very much falls into the Nonbeliever category, to run the football operation.


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